Undergoing surgery can be stressful. For those who have impacted third molars (wisdom teeth) getting them removed can be routine. However, if you’re not careful, you could be in for a long and difficult recovery.

Your wisdom teeth typically come in between ages 17 and 25—your ‘wisdom years’—and according to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, between 75 to 80 percent of people do not meet the criteria for being able to successfully retain their wisdom teeth. If you’re part of the group that elects for the extraction, then here is what to expect once you lose the teeth that hold your wisdom.

Keep an ice pack for the pain

Expect some discomfort, swelling and bleeding

Once your surgery is complete, you can expect a lot of foggy thoughts due to the sedation medications used during surgery, and disorientation. During this time, it’s important to not remove the gauze pad placed over the extraction site for at least 30 minutes, and talk to your surgeon about when and how to replace the gauze.

Swollen cheeks and pain are very common after getting your wisdom teeth removed. Your surgeon will usually provide medication to help deal with the pain and recommend an ice pack every few hours to reduce swelling and ease any discomfort for the first day.

Make sure your wounds heal properly

Avoid dry socket

One of the most important things you can do to aid in your recovery is take it easy. You don’t want to do anything that could dislodge the blood clot from where your teeth were removed. Smoking, vigorous mouth rinsing and creating a suction at the extraction site should be avoided for the first few days.  This blood clot seals the area so that it can heal properly.

A dry socket occurs when the blood clot dissolves and the bone and nerves are exposed. A dry socket can be very painful, so if you think you have this condition, which usually begins on the 3rd or 4th post operative day.  Contact your surgeon immediately so that it can be treated.

Get used to liquid nutrients for awhile

Stock up on fluids

Expect a soft-food diet for a few days following wisdom teeth extraction. Applesauce, yogurt, pudding, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese and other soft foods can help keep your body nourished during recovery. The pain and discomfort may keep your appetite low, but be sure you’re eating and hydrating regularly.

It’s important to avoid any foods that may leave particles in the mouth, such as popcorn, peanuts or chips.

Recovery can vary depending on how impacted your teeth were so talk to your surgeon about a timeline of when you can return to a regular diet.

Follow your surgeon's directions on cleaning your wound

Keep your teeth and the wound clean

For 24 hours after surgery, you may be told to avoid brushing, spitting, flossing and rinsing your mouth. After that, you can gently brush your teeth—as long as you avoid the surgery site. Rinse your mouth with frequently to keep the area clean and minimize the risk of post operative infection.

Your surgeon might send you home with a plastic syringe to use to clean the area where the wisdom teeth were removed. Fill the syringe with water or medicated solution, as directed by your dentist or oral surgeon, and clean the area carefully as instructed.

Watch out for these warning signals

When to seek emergency care

The recovery time could last from a few days to over a week. Use ice packs, pain medication, salt water rinses and soft food to ease the recovery. If you begin to notice an unpleasant discharge, severe pain or fever, call your surgeon right away. Also, if your swelling gets worse instead of better, or if your bleeding doesn’t subside with pressure, contact your health care provider. Complications after surgery are rare, but they are real.

— Dominic Hernandez

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